Though they have just had a shellacking in parliament at the hands of Andrew Wilkie, Woolworths/ALH is looking towards a big victory on Saturday, if the Hodgman Liberal government retains power, and implements a new gaming agreement.

The grocer/wholesaler/pokies venue operator will find itself as one half of a new duopoly. Together with the state’s Federal Group, it will be in line to carve up the existing market of pokies venues — about 90 hotels — with premium buy-outs.

Federal and Woolworths could thus own about 60-70% of the pokies market in the state. Or 100%, if they wanted.

Wilkie has pointed out the horror scenario for Tasmania if that occurs, with Woolworths, and Federal, both able to use their data from networked pokies to maximise the take from hapless punters (as revealed in the ‘push’ documents leaked from Woolworths, and tabled in parliament).

I suspect mainlanders are getting a little tired of hearing of Tasmania’s woes. What about this then? Federal Group doesn’t matter that much, island-bound as it is. But come Saturday Woolworths may well be in line to effectively control an entire Australian state. Here’s how: the Libs win a narrow majority, 13-10/9 (Labor) -2/3 (Green), or a 12+1 working majority, with Michael Kent, the leading Lambie candidate in Lyons.

They pass the new gaming agreement, which takes Federal’s monopoly on pokies machines away, and gives individual licenses to the individual pokies hotels (valued at $1.5-$2 million each, the licenses will be gifted for free). Federal and Woolworths can offer a premium price, and scarf up dozens of pubs.

Woolworths would then control 30-40% of gambling in the state. But of course it also controls a considerable amount of grocery sales on an island almost wholly subject to the Coles-Woolworths duopoly. And it owns half of Statewide Independent Wholesalers, which fills its stores and those of 200 small grocers with Tasmanian and export product (Coles has no Tasmanian wholesaler).

The conglomerate would then have significant sway over Tasmanian life at both ends, from controlling prices to suppliers, to selling them their food back as consumers, and taking the cash of people who never quite make it to the shops.

That plugs Woolworths into the power gifted to Tasmania by federation: 12 senators, each chosen by mere tens of thousands of voters, over against the huge quotas needed in Vic and NSW. Whether Labor, Liberal or other — aside from the Greens — Woolworths would only need to be mildly grumpy for someone’s career to be in trouble, inside a party or out.

There’s no suggestion of corruption here. It would all be legitimate lobbying — by a business neither major party could say no to. Donations disclosure laws in Tasmania are almost non-existent. We don’t know who’s donating the legal money for the wall-to-wall ads of the Liberals and half-a-dozen pro-pokies front groups. By the time it’s revealed, everyone will have forgotten.

Woolies obviously has its fans within the Liberal Party. But Tasmanian Labor is also dominated by the SDA and its hard-right allies. Labor Senators Catryna Bilyk, Anne Urquhart and Helen Polley are all supported by the SDA. Before the 2016 election, they relegated Senator Lisa Singh (a non-aligned leftie) to the unwinnable sixth slot (with a little help from aligned lefties). Singh got back in on a personal below-the-line push.

Then there’s Michael Kent, the 75-year-old mayor of Glamorgan Spring Bay, salmon country, to Hobart’s north-east. Kent spent 20 years rising in, and then running, Purity Supermarkets (Tasmania’s leading independent chain). Purity was then taken over by Woolworths in 1982, and Kent ran that. In his vanity-published autobiography, Kent called supermarkets “my religion”.

He’s an old-school, anti-Green, business-booster retail politician. In acquiring the Purity brand, Woolies acquired a Tasmanian political network — the chain had been created by two Dutch-Tasmanians from the Christian network that gives Eric Abetz, and a number of state Liberal MLAs their powerbase.

Kent is no slouch in regards to pressure politics. He got extended opening hours in Tasmania by striking a deal with the SDA-aligned Labor premier Paul Lennon. He repaid that by running an anti-Greens campaign in the 2006 election called “Tasmanians for a Better Future” urging a vote for majority government. (Lennon is now a lobbyist. His most recent client was Federal Group).

If you think this backwoods politics doesn’t matter to you, well: we just had a plebiscite because of it.

Woolworths potentially vastly expanded power in Tasmania, would come at a time when it is both pulling ahead of rival Coles, and diverging from them in strategy. Both Woolworths and Coles acquired pubs from the mid-’90s, to give them license to run bottle shops in Queensland. The pokies came along with them. Then both chains realised how much money the pubs make.

Coles was then acquired by Wesfarmers, the WA-agri co-op corp, who are now keen to get out of the foul business. Meanwhile Woolworths — under the leadership of Roger Corbett — had acquired 75% of ALH, run by Victorian pokies kings, the Mathieson family.

ALH is now charging ahead as a separate unit within the Woolies’ family, with a new chairman: high conviction Sydney Anglican Roger Corbett. While Coles heads for the exit — impossible to find in pokies’ venues — pokies take has increased to nearly 12% of Woolies’ profits, up from 6% a decade ago.

What use would it be to have sway over an entire state of the Australian federation? Well, you saw why in parliament yesterday. Because if Woolies persists in its pokies-led strategy, it will not only encounter challenge-after-challenge at a federal level, it will have to deal with an anti-pokies movement going national.

Challenges there will be, if Woolworth’s pokies push strategy remains. With Nick Xenophon about to take key power — possibly the premiership — in South Australia, the tide is turning. Coles would have an advantage, if it gets out of pokies entirely. Anti-pokies groups could call for a duopoly switch-boycott: shop at Coles, they don’t run misery machines. 

What better way to tackle this rising national, global wave of revolt, than with your own state? Tasmania, fresh food for Woolies. Unless, come Saturday, the voters of Tasmania decide it’s time for a bagging.

Peter Fray

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